“No soup for you!”

“This company does not pay you to play with your phone!”

Pharmacy bosses, especially in the chains, have used this or similar lines for decades, the idea being that pharmacists, who are paid well, should not be wasting corporate funds with anything as silly as something like taking a break or eating an uninterrupted meal.

And we as a profession are not entitled to these.  In the mid-1960s, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, pharmacy was predominantly independent drug stores, most of them with fountains (eating areas where the pharmacist could get lunch without leaving the premises or really even having to stop providing services to the public).  With the aid of the national organizations, pharmacy was one of the first professions, if not the first, to have itself exempted from the provisions of the FLSA.  Thus, pharmacists under the law have no right to rest or lunch breaks.  Few and little efforts have been made in the ensuing fifty years to change this.  Thus, employers may demand that a pharmacist work a 10, 12, 14, or 14 hour day with no legal right to ever eat, much less go to the bathroom.

Studies are replete with examples that show even short breaks from the duties and stresses of the day have many positive benefits.  Following a rest period of even a few minutes results in increased productivity.  This means that a pharmacist who is getting tired and getting slower in her work will speed back up.

A break results in less stress.  In the pharmacy environment, retail and institutional, stress is rampant and increasing (if you need examples of this, read all the anonymous letters to the editor in the latest issue of Drug Topics).  Taking a few minutes can ease the feelings of stress and anxiety to a remarkable degree, even if only for a short time.  Happier employees, what a concept.

Taking a few minutes every shift can lessen the number of physical ailments seen in the work environment.  This results in less missed shifts, increased productivity where sick employees are showing up for shifts, less overtime for fill-in pharmacists, etc.

The takeaway from this is that breaks and meals would result in a happier environment with higher productivity.  This has been born out in those states and those employers with required lunch breakjs.

The big question is, do pharmacists make more errors as they tire, as the long day goes on?  Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is so, but employers continue to stymie efforts to make significant studies.  What evidence there is has insurance companies providing pharmacist malpractice insurance to consider a daily limit on the number of prescriptions filled.  Once the daily limit is attained, the pharmacist’s malpractice insurance ceases for the day.

Reform in this area is slow to the point of almost being non-existent.  Boards do not see the outcry as there are substantial numbers of pharmacists who, incredibly, prefer the current status quo.  A majority of independent owner/pharmacists do not want any changes.  Many chain pharmacists recognize the end of the pharmacist shortage and will not speak up solely in order to protect their livelihood.

All is not lost. In certain areas, two of the three Big Chains have recently tried ordering that their pharmacies remove all stools and chairs from the pharmacy area.  Not only are the rights to take a break and eat non-existent, employers were trying to take away the right to sit for a few minutes when the opportunity arose.  Here I did write “trying to take away” as in both cases the staffs at most of the stores refused outright to remove the stools; the employers backed down

The takeaway on this is that pharmacists have no right to breaks and/or meals.  Employers are not inclined to support these concepts, despite error rates, evidence that setting a lunch break has done little to harm business at those locations doing so, and the studies that indicate a happier and more productive work environment.

So what should you say the next time your supervisor growls, “We do not pay you to read, check e-mail, play with your phone, etc!”

No, not that, even though we would all love to say it.

Rather, “Well, you should.”

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